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High profile couple never pairs church and state

Greta Van Susteren and her husband, John Coale, rub shoulders with notables in the nation's capital, they involve themselves in controversial legal cases, they like Florida living. But you rarely hear them speak of their religion, Scientology.

By MARY JACOBY

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998


WASHINGTON -- Cable News Network legal analyst Greta Van Susteren and her wealthy trial-lawyer husband, John Coale, are a Beltway power couple. She is the co-host of CNN's top-rated Burden of Proof. He is a mover behind the multi-billion-dollar anti-tobacco lawsuits. Both have dined at the White House.

And what about the fact they belong to a religion that teaches of Xenu, evil head of the Galactic Confederation? Who flew people to Teegeeack (Earth) 75-million years ago in space ships, chained them to volcanos and blew them up with hydrogen bombs, releasing exploded "thetans" that are now the source of most human suffering?

Well, it's not something savvy insiders would normally emphasize.

Van Susteren and Coale are Scientologists. But unlike members of established religions, whose own beliefs might seem improbable if they weren't so widely held, these part-time Clearwater residents are not exactly eager to draw attention to this fact.

"Washington is an extremely conservative place. Anything that starts to go out of the ordinary in one's personal life doesn't make it," said Coale, dressed in a green knit vest and red-striped tie. Van Susteren declined comment.

Van Susteren and Coale straddle two worlds: the capital's high-powered media and political milieu, and the close-knit Scientology community around the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, where they own a home on Clearwater Beach.

Yet these worlds mix about as well as oil and water.

Xenu and his blown-to-bits thetans aren't something you'd want to drop casually into a cocktail conversation here, the way other people might mention a Harvard degree or friendship with Senator so-and-so.

And as a celebrity legal commentator in a town brimming with lawyers, Van Susteren also has to contend with a perception that the church is out to destroy its enemies at any cost. As Scientology founder the late L. Ron Hubbard once wrote, the church should use the legal system to "destroy and harass" its opponents and "ruin them utterly."

In other words, there's a clear culture clash between the conventional, gray Washington establishment and the controversial, Hollywood friendly Church of Scientology. And those contradictions meld in Van Susteren and Coale.

* * *

Van Susteren, the straight-talking 44-year-old former criminal defense lawyer with the blond tresses and slightly askew smile, came to prominence in 1995 with her provocative CNN commentary on the O.J. Simpson trial. (Double murder? Prosecution didn't make its case!)

She now spends her days dissecting the presidential sex scandals. Burden of Proof, the daytime legal affairs show she co-hosts, has plowed the ground endlessly on Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and all things impeachment-related.

Her husband has been less visible but just as colorful. Known as "Bhopal Coale" for swooping into India after the 1984 Union Carbide Corp. poison gas leak that killed more than 2,000 people, Coale, who turns 52 this month, is an unabashed "ambulance chaser."

Train wrecks, plane crashes, fires -- you name it, the avuncular Coale has been there, trolling for business among grieving survivors. Valujet's plunge into the Everglades in 1996 gave him several cases.

More recently, he has handled politically charged suits against tobacco companies and gun makers. He was a key negotiator of the now-defunct $360-billion federal settlement that was supposed to end cigarette makers' liability for smoking deaths in exchange for cash payments to the government.

Coale became a Scientologist in the early 1980s. "I did a lot of drugs back in college," he explained. "Into the '80s, I didn't do a lot of them, but I felt that I wanted to handle this problem, and Scientology handled it."

He and Van Susteren married 10 years ago (his third, her first). On the inside, they are soul mates. On the outside, they're the odd couple: the diminutive 5-foot-3 Van Susteren with her fast-talking, tomboyish manner, and the heavyset 5-foot-9 Coale with his more measured, deliberative style.

For years Coale and Van Susteren practiced together in their own law firm, specializing in high-dollar personal injury cases. Along the way, she became a Scientologist, too.

In Clearwater, the couple cuts a wide swath. Coale tools around town in a vintage red Cadillac (until a recent paint job, it was pink). Van Susteren zips through their Carlouel neighborhood in a 1987 Mercedes sport coupe. They are major donors to a church expansion project and have reached the upper levels of Hubbard's "Bridge to Total Freedom."

But Florida also has given Coale his first taste of discrimination. "This was all new to me. When we went down to Clearwater and saw there were people who didn't like us, just because we were people in the church."

When they built a new home on Clearwater Beach in 1995, Coale recalled, neighbors urged them to join Carlouel Yacht Club. Then a profile of Van Susteren in People magazine mentioned her Scientology connection. "All of a sudden, nobody was saying anything like that anymore," Coale said. "It came back to us . . . that they didn't want us in the club because we were Scientologists."

Their connections to prominent church members are many. Loretta Miscavige, mother of Scientology head David Miscavige, is their law firm accountant, working out of Clearwater.

Actor Tom Cruise, a Scientologist, once flirted with making a movie based on Coale's exploits in India following the Bhopal disaster. And Coale represented fellow Scientologist Lisa Marie Presley in her divorce from singer Michael Jackson.

In 1993, the husband-and-wife legal team played a small role in Scientology's campaign to take over the Cult Awareness Network, or CAN. Church-backed lawsuits bankrupted the organization, which helped people leave Scientology.

Van Susteren and Coale represented an Ohio woman who sued a cult-deprograming organization called Wellspring, whose executive director also sat on the CAN board. But their real target was CAN, which at the time was Scientology's public enemy No. 1.

"We wanted to get CAN in there, but we didn't have the evidence," Coale said. "We thought they were behind it."

Van Susteren won't talk about her relationship with the church. She declined an interview, citing privacy concerns. "The thing about Florida, it's like my home town. I can walk into the Beachcomber (restaurant on Clearwater Beach) and people treat me as a regular guest. I like that."

In Washington, though, there's little doubt Van Susteren stirs emotions, mostly among conservatives, who accuse her of a pro-Clinton bias.

Writing in the National Review, Jonah Goldberg called her the "high priestess of Clinton apologists," and Clinton's "chief cheerleader."(Goldberg is the son of Lucianne Goldberg, the mischiefmaking New York literary agent who encouraged Linda Tripp to tape record Monica Lewinsky).

Indeed, Van Susteren is frequently in touch with White House officials. And in her on-air questioning, she often seems to repeat the official line.

"If one side gets two hours, why not let the White House have two hours? At least, you know, appear to be . . . fair," Van Susteren said on CNN last month, referring to the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing.

She has since branched out into quasi-political commentary, appearing on CNN's Inside Politics during the impeachment hearings. When the White House released a 184-page rebuttal of impeachment articles, Van Susteren told viewers, "It's a plea to the Congress. "Please, just read the records. Don't rely on what everybody's saying.' . . . I've actually gone through them, and I'm not as horrified as most people."

A CNN spokeswoman said Van Susteren appears on Inside Politics as a legal analyst. "Those comments are based entirely on her interpretation of the Constitution and the law, not on her personal political beliefs, which are private," Maggie Simpson said.

Meanwhile, Van Susteren's pro-Clinton voice hasn't gone unrewarded. In May, she sat with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at a state dinner for the Italian prime minister that Coale also attended.

For his part, Coale has taken on a case dear to the Clintonites. He represents a woman who is suing Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff.

Isikoff exposed Monica Lewinsky's affair with Clinton, and he broke the story of former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey's charges that the president had groped her outside the Oval Office.

Coale's client is Julie Hiatt Steele, a former friend of Willey's who is suing the Newsweek reporter for allegedly breaking a promise not to quote her in an article. In conversations with Isikoff, Steele initially backed up Willey, then changed her story to say Willey had asked her to lie.

"It puts me in the game" of Washington, Coale said of the case, which is still is preliminary stages. "Besides, I'm outraged at what has happened to Julie Steele."

His political donations also put him in the game. In 1998 he gave $20,000 to various Democratic party arms, including the Democratic National Committee and Vice President Al Gore's political action committee.

* * *

Despite their contacts with the White House, Van Susteren and Coale do not seem to be lobbying for Scientology, unlike John Travolta, who met Clinton to discuss Germany's hardline policies against the church.

"It's not like I'm standing on the corner of 16th and Pennsylvania handing out Dianetics books," Coale laughed.

So while the church trots out its celebrity members for maximum P.R. effect -- beside Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, Chick Corea and Lisa Marie Presley all have promoted Scientology -- a Washington celebrity like Van Susteren keeps a low profile.

Even church documents refer to her by less well known names. A Scientology brochure lauding top contributors to a Clearwater building project lists a "Greta Conway" in a category of people who donated $100,000 or more. Conway is Van Susteren's middle name. Another brochure lists a "Mr. and Mrs. John Coale" in the same category.

Coale said his wife isn't trying to hide anything. "Her affiliation with the church has been all over the media for years."

Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder added that the church has never asked Van Susteren to publicize her membership. Celebrities who speak out for Scientology make a "personal decision," he said.

It's also true that Hollywood actors don't have to worry about Scientology's undermining their credibility in the same way that a Washington figure would.

"In Hollywood? They do whatever they want to do," Coale said. "It's just not what kind of people we are," he said.

Rather, the couple's contribution to Scientology comes from setting an example among skeptics in the nation's capital, he said.

"People who've worked with me, who've worked with Greta, know we're successful, we have a great marriage, [we're] people who deal honestly, so if that's a reflection of the Church, that's how we help."

Still, in a religion-besotted town where politicians seek out churches for photo ops and one of the top lobbying groups is named the Christian Coalition, it's curious that few people know of Van Susteren and Coale's Scientology affiliation.

"I had no idea," said Chuck Conconi, Washingtonian magazine editor at large.

"Washington is a town where you don't want to stand out. You could become a target," Conconi said. "And Scientology is considered, by and large by anyone here, to be a wacky cult."

Concluded Rob Boston, who monitors the political activities of religious organizations for the D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

"It certainly speaks to the fact that the church has a long way to go" in terms of how it's perceived in Washington. "If these two were Methodists, I'm sure they wouldn't hesitate (to publicize it.) But saying you're a Scientologist raises red flags."

Times writers Thomas C. Tobin and Lucy Morgan and staff researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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